Terri Bird and Fiona Macdonald

Australian Centre for Contemporary Art

Terri Bird and Fiona MacDonald deny the desire to affix meanings to art; they demand that the audience use their own powers of translation. The white spaces of these complementary installations are a shadow theater of ideas and texts. Terri Bird’s Devices for the Interpretation of Nature, 1991, consists of a dazzlingly empty gallery. In its corners are four small sculptures; outside, the gallery’s exits are discreetly marked by bronze bricks set into pavement. Fiona MacDonald’s An Untitled Illustration: Man’s Mind, Part 17, 1991, is figured in the shape of a labyrinth of white walls. The installations defeat both reason and the senses: MacDonald’s maze frustrates scopic comprehension; Bird’s meticulously crafted objets disappear in a void-like haze.

Together, these works are an opposition of maze and void. They are extraordinarily self-conscious—depictions of depictions. MacDonald’s gallery disappears; her maze is punctuated by cul-de-sacs, each a representation of an idea. A wall of lead is embossed with a geometric diagram; the circle is squared. A list of disused words is stenciled onto a water-stained simulation of ruin—the List of Sweet Words, 1991. Elsewhere, backlit and slightly overlapping transparencies of disintegrating script are set into a recess, illustrating the idea of representations cast adrift. Bird’s space asserts order; her resin-and-marble-dust statuettes are positioned in the gallery like points of a compass, as four aspects of one truth. However, the blurred outlines of casting corrupts each image. Only after close examination does one realize that these are reproductions of found kitsch objects: Chinese revolutionary soldiers, a flame, a shrunken replica of Rodin’s The Kiss, an elephant figurine.

Interventions at the entrance and exit suggest the logic of this enterprise the construction of a temple to mask a violent interrogation of our sense of location in the world. Bird set the signs of an eye and a heraldic quatrefoil into bronze. bricks at one doorway, facing a city view beyond the enclosed garden that suggests the symbolic recreation of the world by scopic vision. At the main entrance, she placed the inscription, “Listening not to me but to the logos it is wise to agree that all things are one.” The light that filledthe gallery was clearly identified as the light of reason, and classical motifs were its syntax. As in the work of Ian Hamilton Finlay, reason does not eradicate darkness. The flip side of virtue’s coin is terror.

These installations refer to a crisis in representation, well-rehearsed in much current art. Did Bird and MacDonald aspire to the presentation of a system of knowledge or theory? Their world is engulfed by signs, and visuality is linked with affliction. The overriding metaphors of the exhibition and its accompanying essays were of blindness, misrecognition, denial, and relegation. How were the artists able to engage these concerns? First, by evacuating images from the museum’s space; these were visually overwhelmed and concealed. Second, a programmatic insistence on the fragmentation of vision was conflated with the collapse between image and referent. Compass points imply a subdivided world; a labyrinth defeats the eye’s attempt to assemble a coherent view; white walls blind. Real-time tragedy is displaced by representation. The literacy that these works display cannot be faulted, but one regrets their sophisticated refusal to claim the viewer’s attention.

Charles Green